Now, That’s Settled

To recap the story: in 2009, I learned that a painter named Sarah Morris had been taking my crease patterns, recoloring and renaming them, and then selling them as her own work (without credit or permission). Needless to say, that was not happy-making, and after some unsuccessful attempts to engage her in rectifying the situation, I and five other origami artists whose work she had similarly used filed suit in California court for copyright infringement.

After a couple of years of legal wheels turning (which included a re-filing that moved the venue to New York), in March, 2013, we were able to come to an amicable settlement of the matter. Most terms and conditions of the settlement will remain confidential (as is often the case in these sorts of things), but as part of the settlement, we all agreed that the works listed here would be retitled to include the name of the origami artist and the original title of the origami crease pattern.

We started with six affected artists (an international group, representing the US, Japan, Spain, and Italy). Along the way, three of the international artists had to drop out for various reasons (travel requirements, logistical difficulties); the remaining three soldiered on. One of the things I am particularly happy about with the settlement was that the re-titling and attribution includes works by all six of the affected artists, even those who had to drop out of the legal activities.

So what does this mean for origami and origami artists? Well, the first thing to point out is that since this was a private settlement with both sides agreeing to drop the case, there is no legal precedent established. That’s probably the case with most legal disputes; our legal system wants disputants to come to terms on their own, not least because it saves the taxpayer money! Going all the way to trial should be a last resort, only to be taken if (a) the parties can’t agree, and (b) it’s not clear what the outcome of a trial would likely be. (Even if folks can’t agree, if it’s really clear what the outcome of a trial would be, one should settle.) As the legal system proceeds with motions, counter-motions, and rulings on said motions, the murkiness of (b) may start to become clearer and at some point, it may (and often does) become clear enough that it points the way to a legal settlement.

But even though there was not a legal precedent set with this settlement, I do think there was something of a moral precedent set for origami artwork, and, paradoxically, it’s not that there’s something special about origami, but quite the opposite: that there’s nothing particularly different about origami when it comes to matters of copyright and rights of attributions. Origami artworks and artwork related to origami, like photographs, metal sculpture, and yes, crease patterns, are, first and foremost art, the creative expression of an artist with an aesthetic vision, and so are entitled to the respect and protection that are afforded to other visual arts. In the case of crease patterns, the artworks are unique, distinct, and individually recognizable (in fact, the way I learned about this situation was someone saying, “hey Robert, I saw one of your designs under someone else’s name”). There are certainly plenty of public-domain crease patterns available (such as those of traditional Japanese designs), and an artist who wishes to use a crease pattern always has the option of creating his/her own (if only by folding a sheet of paper randomly and then unfolding it and recording the pattern), but if one wishes to use the specific creative output of another artist in a way that leaves it recognizable, one should engage with that artist to work out an arrangement satisfactory to all.

And, at long last, we now have an arrangement that is indeed satisfactory to all concerned.

So whither origami crease patterns in the art world and beyond? I displayed my first crease patterns as standalone art back in 2003 and over the years have shown them in various incarnations—prints, giclees, and, in collaboration with Kevin Box, as wall-mounted metal sculpture. Sometimes they are displayed together with their folded works, sometimes as standalone pieces, where the pattern can hint at deeper connections to its subject but leaving the completion to the viewer’s imagination. Other origami artists are exploring using their crease patterns as springboards for broader artistic statements (I am particularly fond of Sipho Mabona’s treatments of his own designs), and I see this as part of the greater evolution of the art of origami. This evolution is not a linear progression: it is a radiation. We can have simultaneously the simple traditional figures to be shared and taught, and works of complexity, abstraction, and transitions to other materials and media (metal, plastic, and more). They’re all part of the wondrous fabric of this art form that has captivated me for now well over 4 decades, and which, for me, will never stop expanding.